California has once again shown itself to be a leader in promoting civil rights and equality for all by banning school suspensions for K-3rd grade students and expulsions for all students under the subjective and often-abused “willful defiance” standard in the Education Code. As part of our mission to fight bigotry of all kinds, ADL has had a long history of supporting equal access to quality education for all students—the goal promised in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling in 1954. This momentous change in California law, which ADL proudly supported, will bring us a significant step closer to that ideal.
The new law specifies that a public school student in grades 6-12 may be suspended for willful defiance—which can be as minor as a dress code violation or failure to hand in homework—only after the third offense in a school year, and provided that other means of resolving the behavioral problems were first attempted. The law also prohibits a school from recommending that student for expulsion solely for willful defiance. The law now encourages schools to invest in children rather than resorting to harsh out-of-school discipline for relatively minor offenses. Its passage will ensure that students remain where they need to be—in class—and not on the streets or in the criminal justice system.
Although there are many factors that contribute to a student’s inability to thrive in school, the cycle of suspensions and expulsions is among the best indicators of which students will drop out. Students who drop out of school have more difficulty finding gainful employment, have much lower earning power when they are employed, and ultimately are more likely to wind up in the criminal justice system. This troubling phenomenon—which disproportionately impacts students of color, students with disabilities, and students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender—has become known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Working to dismantle the pipeline has become a key focus of ADL’s civil rights and education agendas.
Both the Los Angeles Unified School District and the San Francisco Unified School District have already completely banned suspensions and expulsions for willful defiance, taking a significant step towards dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline. California’s new statewide law will sunset in three and a half years. During this time, ADL will be working with coalition partners on new bills and initiatives to strengthen protections for students and develop additional alternative methods for changing negative student behaviors with positive interventions.